Thursday, February 14, 2013

Here Comes the Boom: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s probably time to stop wishing for a truly satisfying Die Hard sequel. Oh, sure, Die Hard 2 and especially Die Hard with a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard are solid action movies with some fun sequences, nice special effects, and a sense of relaxed tension slowly escalating, but none of them match the elegant simplicity of the 1988 original, which matches a wry Bruce Willis performance with an airtight plot of ever rising suspense. It’s an impeccably timed nail-biter that holds up remarkably well, largely because of a smoothly unfolding plot in which every scene has a purpose and every scrap of characterization contains a sliver of setup that leads to big payoffs.  

Now we’ve arrived at a fourth sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard, which one could argue fails the least of any Die Hard sequel, but only because it tries the least. I’m not one to reward aiming low, so I’m more than ready to declare it the weakest of the bunch. It’s the shortest of the franchise by nearly half an hour, but is nonetheless a nearly instantly exhausting experience that starts with the gas pedal pushed all the way to the floor and the sound effects cranked up to eleven. It’s a barrage of noise failing to distract from the movie’s essential blankness, a void of purpose and pleasure from which only competently ground out setpieces emerge.

This is the kind of action movie so relentless and breathless that the more it explains itself, the more I wondered why I cared and why the filmmakers bothered. The simple plot quickly and dumbly told follows John McClane (Willis, of course) to Moscow, after he’s told his estranged son (Jai Courtney) was arrested there. When he arrives, he finds himself pulled into a plot in which some glowering Russians want to get a MacGuffin from some other glowering Russians, a process that involves a bunch of bombs, crunchy car chases, seemingly limitless supplies of human targets and endlessly expelled projectiles. It turns out McClane, Jr. is not in trouble for the shady reasons his father assumes. He’s a C.I.A. operative trying to sneak one of the good Russians out of the country before something bad happens. What that Bad Thing is, I’m still not sure. I’d tell you more but A.) I don’t need to spoil it and B.) I don’t quite know what’s going on with this plot that thins as it goes, springing twists with all the sad inevitability of a magician who is insufficiently hiding his slight of hand. The whole thing drones along, shedding complications as it goes.

The first car chase of the film happens more or less right away and is an overheated, nearly cartoonish thing of pinwheeling debris, endless rounds of ammunition, cars driving on top of other cars, trucks crashing down to the road from off of concrete overpasses. John McClane just saw his son rescue a good Russian from an assassination attempt while fleeing from heavily armed bad guys and decides to steal a car to chase after the chase. It’s such a strange character moment for a man whose defining characteristic over four previous films has been his reluctance, his smirking, can-you-believe-this-is-happening-to-me attitude of stepping up only because he’s the only one in a position to do so. Here he throws himself into a collateral-damage-catastrophe simply because he wants to. Later, he’ll gleefully talk about “shooting bad guys” and smirking at his son as they bond over their constant stream of action related incidents.

It’s directed by John Moore, who keeps the slam-bang action coming nonstop. He has spent the bulk of his career making serviceable B-pictures for 20th Century Fox, movies like Behind Enemy Lines (okay), a remake of The Omen (fine), and Max Payne (dull). When viewing this movie as simply another modest action effort, without considering the franchise baggage, it’s a bit better. That opening car chase that’s a mess of characterization is satisfactorily crusty and goofy and a climactic fulmination at an abandoned nuclear power plant has some CG-assisted stunt work that goes so far over the top, it provides us with a long, sustained bird’s-eye-view of the top as it sits way down below. But what’s inescapably strange and off-putting about this movie of intermittently minor pleasures is the way it just doesn’t feel like a Die Hard movie. Its thinly written script by Skip Woods is papered over in superficial plot complications that fade away so that, by the film’s improbable action climax and sappy Hallmark dénouement, it’s all too clear how empty it all is. It’s as fleeting and unpleasant as the acrid smoke that quickly drifts away from all the carnage the characters leave behind.

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